Joe Mathews: Old idea of guaranteed income is gaining new ground

Demonstrators rally for higher wages at the state Capitol on Nov. 10.
Demonstrators rally for higher wages at the state Capitol on Nov. 10. Sacramento Bee file

Do you want your ham and eggs, California?

It is one of the most enduring ideas in our state: Government should provide everyone with a minimum amount of money on a regular basis. It goes back to the 1930s, with the narrow rejection of the so-called “Ham and Eggs” proposals to give older Californians a $30 check every Thursday.

Now, this notion is back, a subject of op-eds and speeches, and with some bipartisan political momentum.

Thinkers on the left have embraced it as a bulwark against poverty, inequality and corporate power. Feminists and children’s advocates say it would pay people for the crucial work of homemaking and child-rearing. Some conservatives like the idea as a way to consolidate the sprawling number of government programs into a single cash grant. And venture capitalists in Silicon Valley see it as vital insurance against the likelihood that artificial intelligence will eliminate millions of jobs.

The “Ham and Eggs” idea has different names and comes in different concepts. Some proponents talk about a universal basic income, or guaranteed minimum income, so that all citizens have enough money to live on. Conservatives often prefer to call it the “negative income tax,” since they would expand the tax system to provide supplemental pay to those who don’t reach a minimum.

In the rest of America, the idea is usually dismissed as socialistic or irretrievably expensive. But in California, it has remained stubbornly strong.

Why? It may persist because our volatile, boom-and-bust economic culture produces moments of real desperation for millions. Or maybe Californians have more appreciation for the technologically advanced future that will require less labor.

What is undeniable is California’s historic role in social insurance schemes. It was a Long Beach doctor, Francis Townsend, who suggested the program that became Social Security. The “End Poverty in California” movement of the 1930s included a push for pensions for all. And then there were those two high-profile statewide initiatives in 1938 and 1939 to give Californians age 50 and older $30 every Thursday.

Their defeats hardly discredited the idea. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was a strong proponent. So was conservative economist Milton Friedman, an important California figure who advised President Ronald Reagan and backed Proposition 13.

Friedman designed and promoted a proposal for “the negative income tax,” which helped inspire the only president born in California, Richard Nixon, to offer his own proposal in 1969. It failed, but the concept didn’t die.

We’ve seen elements of guaranteed income in proposals to double the size of Social Security checks, and in the movement for a $15 per hour minimum wage. Thinkers on the left, including California-based academic Robert Reich, have come out for it. On the right, presidential candidate Marco Rubio and House Speaker Paul Ryan have sought to consolidate existing welfare programs into cash grants that would be run through states.

But in California, the most intriguing support is centered in Silicon Valley. There, the arguments are that a guaranteed income will protect the people who lose their jobs because of technological innovations, and that more people would have more time to be entrepreneurial if they didn’t have to worry about paying their bills.

“Universal basic income might be the most meaningful way we could subsidize the earliest stages of innovation,” wrote venture capitalist Roy Bahat in the Washington Post.

California, with its powerful ballot initiative system, offers perhaps the most likely venue to try such an idea at the state level. For weeks, I’ve heard rumors about Bay Area venture capitalists planning such an initiative, but have been unable to confirm them.

Either way, this is one California idea that isn’t going away. Your check may soon be in the mail.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.